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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 26 Nov 2020

Vol. 1001 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The Ceann Comhairle has kept a list the names of Members who are to be called and I will go through them first following the leaders' contributions.

Three weeks have now passed since the Tánaiste stood in this Chamber and told the House that he would be happy to provide any and all records relating to his passing of the IMO contracts to his friend and member of a rival organisation, the National Association of General Practitioners. In the same week, the Taoiseach told my party leader that his Department had an open door and that he too would provide all documentation. Yet here we are three weeks later and we have not received a single document from the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, or the Ministers for Health and Finance, as requested in writing on three separate occasions. If the Government has nothing to hide, then surely we would have got the documents by now. Many of us are asking exactly what is going on. When will the Tánaiste make good on the commitment he gave to this House three weeks ago to provide all the information we have been requesting?

For my own part, there are not any more records other than those that have been put in the public domain already and have been flashed all over the Internet. I provided any records that I have. Any records that are held by the Department of Health or the Department of the Taoiseach I do not hold. It is normal practice that when Ministers leave Departments, they do not take their records with them. The records stay with the Department. Any records would be held by the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Health.

I am sure they will release them if they exist but the nature of this interaction, which has been discussed at length for the last few weeks, means that there were no records. I am sure that any records that do exist of communications between the Government and the NAGP will be released by those Departments but I do not hold them personally.

I want to raise an issue relating to workers, prior to the Government making its decisions on what is going to happen around Christmas. We have not had a chance to chat about this but I encourage the Tánaiste to extend the period for travel between counties from 2 or 3 January to 4 or 5 January. Many workers, particularly healthcare workers, who do not have children work through Christmas and the new year period is more important to them because they give up their time at Christmas for people with kids. I just wanted to say that.

The real issue I wish to raise relates to student nurses. Overnight, 12,000 people have signed the petition from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, on this matter. Everybody in the country knows this Christmas will be different. These student nurses have done everything for us over the last eight months. They have been incredible. One of the best Christmas presents this Government could give workers is to show solidarity with these extraordinary people who have done so much on the front line over the last number of months and pay them what they deserve, or make some contribution towards that.

We all appreciate the extra work student nurses have done during the pandemic to help us increase our health service capacity. In recognition of that, many student nurses were taken on as healthcare assistants during the first wave and were paid for that purpose. It is important to acknowledge that generally, students are not paid across the public service. Medical students, trainee gardaí and teacher trainees are not paid. Student nurses in their final or pre-registration year are paid because they are different and do real work on wards that would not be done were it not for them. That is why there is special recognition for student nurses and why they get paid in their pre-registration year, even though most students in the public service and, indeed, the private sector, do not get paid for their work. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is examining whether we can improve the payment they receive but this issue must be seen in the wider context that it is not the norm for students to receive payment in either the public or private sector.

I also extend my sincere sympathies to the families and friends of the two homeless people who have died. There has been increased use by the Government over the last year of private hostels for people who have become homeless, without the support services in place in accommodation provided by NGOs, and there have been reports of some very serious breaches of human rights in these hostels, such as rules about not being allowed to chat and people who have become homeless being barred for very minor infringements of these rules. Does the Tánaiste share my concern about the impact these private hostels without support services are having on homeless people? What action will the Government take to address this?

Our objective is to ensure that people who are homeless receive wraparound supports, regardless of whether they are accommodated in hostels provided by NGOs or by private providers. Those supports are obviously easier to provide in accommodation provided by an NGO or a charity than in private accommodation. When these private providers are used, it is probably out of necessity because there is no alternative available. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, to contact the Deputy directly and engage with him on this issue. I share his concerns but the matter may not be as clear-cut as it is sometimes presented.

Nursing is arguably the most dangerous job in the country in this pandemic. Around 50 nurses a day have to stop work because they have either contracted Covid or are a close contact of someone who has. More than 3,000 student nurses have done placement work in our hospitals in the last few months. If someone studies nursing in college, Covid risk is on the curriculum. The Tánaiste said in response to Deputy Kelly that paying students does not tend to be the practice across the public sector. However, it also does not tend to be the practice across the public sector for people doing placement work to have anywhere near the level of risk our student nurses face. Despite this, they go to work in our hospitals to be paid precisely €0. This has to end. Some of them receive an allowance but it is a pitiable allowance of €50 a week or €7 a day and those who receive it are in a small minority. I understand that the Department is currently in negotiations with the INMO on the student pay issue. Can the Tánaiste give the House an update on the progress of these talks and some indication as to when they might be concluded?

Everyone who works in our health service puts themselves at risk of contracting Covid because of their work, as do many people beyond it. It is not just nurses but also doctors, cleaners, caterers and anyone working in a hospital, including therapists. Many people who do not work in hospitals do so as well, such as people who work in retail and transport. We need to acknowledge that many people are more at risk than those who can work from home because they deal with other people. That is not just the case for nurses. Thankfully, while many healthcare workers in Ireland have contracted Covid, the number who have died as a consequence is very low relative to other countries.

As the Deputy noted, student nurses are paid in their pre-registration year in recognition of the fact that, unlike other students, they do work that would not otherwise be done and would have to be paid for. It is unusual for students in the public sector to receive payment. Negotiations are under way. I cannot give the Deputy an update on them right now but they are under way and hopefully they will come to a conclusion. It is best that they are conducted between the Government and the union rather than being played out here.

Since last Monday's comments by the Taoiseach, Tipperary publicans have been distraught and demoralised. We all want to have a Christmas and enjoy it, but the policy of the continued closure of pubs over Christmas has destroyed Christmas for publicans and their dependent families. It spells financial disaster for them. Unlike other countries across Europe, Ireland has victimised publicans. We are fooling ourselves if we believe house parties and social gatherings will not happen over Christmas. People have been through one of the toughest years in living memory. They will celebrate Christmas because they need to do so and alcohol will be part of that celebration. It would be much better if we celebrated Christmas in the controlled and much safer environment of a pub, where the publican would ensure proper rules are followed and behaviour is monitored. The publican will police his customers and if need be, the Garda will police the pub owner. That is the way it should be. Publicans have generations of experience. They are responsible, trustworthy and capable of opening for business in a safe manner.

The Deputy is over time.

I ask the Tánaiste to see what can be done to assist publicans in the next 24 hours.

There will be a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid today and a Cabinet meeting tomorrow. After that, we will be able to make a decision on what can and cannot reopen in December. No decisions have yet been made about restaurants, pubs or hotels at this stage. Whatever happens, we will make sure financial supports like the employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, remain in place for businesses that cannot open. As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I will make sure that happens. I understand the argument that a pub is a controlled environment and that people are less likely to interact there than they would at a house party or a home gathering, and I am sympathetic to it. However, we need to bear in mind that just because people can gather in a pub, it does not mean that an equal number of home gatherings will not happen. In fact, it is very possible that, having spent a few hours or a night in the pub, people will then retire to somebody's house and have a house party there. It is not necessarily true that if we open the pubs there will be fewer house parties. We might end up with the same number or even more and therefore increase risk.

I raised the issue of Tipperary town and its task force with the Tánaiste several times last year and the year before. Thankfully, he set up a task force, which is now chaired by Alison Harvey. The task force is doing its best with the Jobs4Tipp and March4Tipp initiatives and the creation of the chamber of commerce. However, the county council is proposing to do another two years' work on Main Street, which will effectively close down the town for two further years.

We welcome the funding but there needs to be engagement. The Part 8 process closes this weekend. There have been hundreds of submissions from business people and ordinary people living there. We need a proper ring road around Tipperary town that will alleviate the problem and get the trucks out of town. Will the Tánaiste speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ryan, to collaborate with all those groups and the county council to see if we can work together. Ní neart go cur le chéile. It is important that we work together and bring the people with us. They will not accept the closure of the town again for a further 18 months or two years. They cannot do it.

I know that Tipperary town needs help. It is a town that needs to be reinvigorated and revitalised. The Deputy has raised this with me many times, as have Deputies Lowry and Cahill and Senator Ahearne. Going back to my time in Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, there was funding for a one-way system to the town which did not get approval. Now there is talk of a ring road.

We have set up the task force, and I am glad to hear that it is doing good work. I will mention the matter to the Minister, Deputy Ryan and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, so that the matter can be brought to a conclusion.

We have a short list of speakers carried over from yesterday. I ask everyone to be as brief as possible so we can get everyone in.

I wish to raise the fair deal scheme. Small businesses and farm families find it very hard to avail of this scheme in its current form. We have been promised legislation on it to make it more financially acceptable for both businesses and farm families. When will that be implemented?

I am advised that legislation will be ready at the end of December, that is, in the next few weeks. There is an unfairness in the fair deal scheme and how it treats farm assets and the assets of small business. We want to make that change and make the fair deal fairer for those who own a business or farm. I appreciate this new legislation has been promised for a very long time. I know the Deputy will not believe it until he sees it but I am advised it is only a matter of weeks away at this stage.

This is an issue I have been trying to raise for the past three weeks on the Topical Issues debate. Since August 2016, I have raised the lack of secondary school places in east Cork. Unfortunately, this arises every year. In March 2020, I raised the issue of 200 children in east Cork who could not get to school because of transport problems. In June 2019, I raised the problems with planning for a three-school campus in Carrigtwohill. Now I am being contacted by parents who are very stressed and anxious, as are the children, that they face problems getting children into secondary school next year. I have spoken to many principals who have borne the brunt of parents' frustrations because the children cannot get a place in schools and they are getting the blame.

Will the Department step up to the plate and take responsibility to support the principals, and to support the families and provide adequate places in the schools? East Cork school places are oversubscribed and under-resourced. I ask the Tánaiste to get the Department to address this so that we do not have to face this problem again.

I appreciate that the shortage of secondary school places in east Cork is a burning issue, as it also is in my constituency. It is a feature in several parts of the country where it is not always possible to provide a child with a place in their school of first choice, but it is always possible to provide a place in a school not too far away.

I do not know the details of the particular schools mentioned by the Deputy but I will see the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, tomorrow, and let her know that it was raised again in the Dáil and ask her to contact the Deputy directly.

The Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment reported that high-support units in Irish prisons that accommodate mentally ill prisoners offered poor conditions and inadequate treatment. Reading parts of this, one would be forgiven for thinking it was a report on Irish prisons from more than 100 years ago, but the committee only visited Irish prisons in September this year. The report stated that one mentally unwell man was found "lying naked in his cell, with the cell smeared with faeces and puddles of urine on the floor," with a urine-soaked poncho for cover. This is not only unacceptable; this is inhumane. I join the Irish Penal Reform Trust in asking when the Government will establish a task force to resolve this matter.

I think we all agree that prisoners should be treated humanely, especially those who suffer from mental illness. I do not know the answer to the Deputy's question about the task force but I will certainly raise it with the Minister for Justice and ask her to provide him with a written response.

The programme for Government features the roll-out of cycle lanes. In our constituency, around Hartstown, Huntstown and the Mountview area, this has caused great consternation and annoyance for many people. I have received hundreds of complaints from residents who are trying to access and egress their estates. I live in Lohunda in Clonsilla, just off the Mountview Road where it has caused huge problems for people trying to get in and out. We need more consultation on these cycle lanes and to examine the guidelines. Reports from Fingal County Council suggest it is using the National Transport Authority, NTA, guidelines, which, unfortunately, do not appear to be fit for purpose. People have been woken at 2 a.m. They cannot get in and out of their homes and up to a dozen people have fallen over the lane dividers. We need to do something. Can we get a commitment to change the guidelines?

I have also received some complaints on the same matter. It is more one for the council than central government. I think everyone appreciates why the cycle lanes have been put in place. We want people to cycle more and, at a time public transport is advised against for public health reasons, we want to facilitate more people to cycle. However, there must be proper consultation with local communities, which does not always happen. We have had some difficulties with traffic in the Phoenix Park, and with cycle lanes in Hartstown, Huntstown and Mountview. I will commit to engage with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the NTA on this to see if we can improve things.

We return to today's list. I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

Community employment, CE, supervisors remain without pension entitlements. This is a long-running issue that has not been addressed. I have been contacted regularly by a number of CE supervisors in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny who feel very left behind. Why, after more than ten years, do they remain without a pension? A deep sense of frustration is felt by the CE supervisors and assistant supervisors in their efforts to secure an occupational pension. The State hires these supervisors and, to all intents and purposes, employs them. We need this issue to be sorted once and for all.

Promises were made but two judgements are being ignored - one historic and one recent. The first is the 2008 Labour Court recommendation that the funding agency was a statutory body of the Government and had responsibility for the CE supervisors' pensions, and, more recently, a report by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which indicates a responsibility on the State's part to provide a pension. This judgement is available on the WRC website. There are talks going on and we should have a solution.

The Deputy has her point made, she has used her time.

This is a long-running issue and sore. It ongoing for 15 years by now. I would also love to see a resolution. It is the case that CE supervisors are entitled to the State contributory pension, as everyone else is, but they are not entitled to a public service pension. The reason for that is, first, they are not public servants, they are not employees of the State even though the body that employs them is funded by the State and, second, they have not been paying a public sector pension contribution throughout their working life, as every public servant does. If we start giving public service pensions to people who are not public servants and have not been paying a percentage of their salary into their public service pension, there will be no end to that and that is not something that any Government can concede. If we can find some solution another way, we would be happy to do so and we want to do so.

We are on the verge of resolving a long-standing issue around school secretaries and caretakers, and this is another that we would really like to see resolved, but it can only be resolved in that context. We cannot get into a situation whereby we give public sector pensions to people who are not public servants and did not pay a public service contribution all their lives.

Tackling homelessness is mentioned many times in the programme for Government. It is a very serious issue in Wexford that requires immediate action.

There is no homeless hostel in my county specifically for women. When I asked a parliamentary question about the issue I received a reply about a shelter for women suffering domestic violence. At the moment women in my county who are in dire need of safe accommodation due to homelessness have no safe place to go. I know that eradicating homelessness is a priority of the Taoiseach and the Government. I, therefore, urge the Government to intervene in this matter and request that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to provide Wexford County Council with the funding and support necessary to provide this vital humanitarian service.

I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I do not know the details of the issue he has raised, but I will take it up with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Daragh O'Brien, and ask him to reply to the Deputy directly.

Page 62 of the programme for Government states that the Government will work on a package of reforms with approved housing bodies, AHBs. Will the Government consider allowing AHBs to sell their housing stock so that those residents who wish to, and are able to, put down permanent roots can do so? I also call on the Government to ensure money is ring-fenced so that housing units are not affected. I ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to meet with residents of AHB housing in south Kildare. These residents feel they have been robbed of the opportunity to own their own homes. Promises were made to them and were not followed through.

I will certainly mention the fact that the Deputy raised this matter to the Minister when I see him later. However, we generally prefer that social housing, particularly housing held by AHBs, not to be sold off. That stock should remain as public housing for reasons the Deputy will understand. Selling off public housing stock will leave less for people in need of it. However, I appreciate that people who have lived in those homes for 20 or 30 years want the right to own them. It is a case of trying to get that balance right.

Dublin City Council recently published plans for the regeneration of the Pearse House flats, located just across the River Liffey from here. The Government has indicated its support, which is very welcome. The regeneration of Pearse House is a really important development but plans suggest that it could take 12 to 15 years. Will the Government fast-track funding for the scheme so that residents do not have to live on a building site for many years or possibly decades?

I thank the Deputy. I will have to ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to contact him directly on this issue. The Deputy will be as familiar as I am with the refurbishment of big housing schemes in Dublin city. The issues are not always just about money, particularly if the schemes are to be retained rather than being demolished or rebuilt. If they are listed or partially listed, the work can take years but I appreciate the Deputy's point.

I would like to ask the Tánaiste about his recent comments on the Covid-19 crisis and the potential for another lockdown in January. This is an extremely worrying time for people. We are being asked to follow public health advice, but the Tánaiste is now projecting that advice. To some people, his comments mean that they will have a limited window to see their families and friends. This will push some people into socialising to make the most of the short period. Others are scared that they will not be able to see their parents, grandparents or families for an extended period after Christmas. We need to give people certainty.

I would love to give people certainty, but the only certainty we can give people is that this virus makes a mockery of our plans all the time. Nobody wants a third period of restrictions in January or February but the projections of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, present that possibility. As we ease restrictions in the coming weeks, cases will rise and that may require us to reimpose restrictions in January and February. That is simply the truth. It is not scaremongering. I am being honest with people.

The other issue I would like to mention is there is no question of there being an outright travel ban between North and South. It is not under consideration and is not being discussed, period. We do not have a travel ban with Poland and we are certainly not going to have one with Northern Ireland. However, as we move from level 5 to level 3, which we hope to do next week, inter-county travel will still be restricted. It will only be allowed for work, school or essential purposes like caring for an elderly relative. Inter-county travel, including cross-Border travel, for shopping or for visiting friends and relatives will not be allowed. We hope to be in a position to advise people that they can travel between counties, including in Northern Ireland, to visit friends and relatives closer to Christmas but that will depend on the epidemiological data then. At the moment the rates of Covid-19 infection in Northern Ireland are much higher than they are here, but that might look very different in two weeks because restrictions are being reimposed there and relaxed here. We will make a decision on inter-county travel, including Northern Ireland, closer to Christmas.

I thank the Tánaiste for his clarity in stating that there will not be a ban on cross-Border travel.

The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has stated that the outlook for the environment in Ireland is not good unless all sectors are addressed. I would like to discuss Irish Water. There are 113 priorities for dealing with pollution. Raw sewage is being pumped into the water in 35 towns and villages, including Omeath. There are no plans to deal with 33 of these until after next year. This is not on. What interaction will the Government have with Irish Water to deal with this?

We appreciate that there is a lot of work to do in the next few years to improve our water quality. It has improved a lot in recent years, but big investment by Irish Water is required to make it better. The budget for 2021 includes increased capital spending and a bigger capital budget for Irish Water, which will allow the company to make some real improvements throughout the country.

This morning, I raised the very concerning issue of a Derry-based bus company advertising shopping tours to Dundrum in my constituency in advance of Christmas. In light of the Tánaiste's responses to Deputies Gould and Lowry, does the Government have any plans to introduce regulations or legislation to deal with this extremely irresponsible online activity, which promotes something that completely goes against the guidelines that he has discussed?

If the Deputy can provide me with the details, I will check out the legality of that example. It may already be against the law. We are now under level 5 restrictions. We hope to move to level 3 next week. At level 3, inter-county travel is allowed for work, education and essential purposes such as medical appointments or caring for elderly relatives or children who cannot be cared for by somebody else. Unfortunately, that does not cover visiting friends and relatives, shopping or weekends away. Level 3 will not permit inter-county travel of a non-essential nature. That also applies to North-South travel, which is inter-county travel. Any relaxation of the rules on visiting friends, shopping or anything else of that nature will be considered closer to Christmas depending on the epidemiological data at the time.

I wish to ask about the development of a national clean air strategy, which is a commitment of the programme for Government. According to the EPA, 1,300 people die prematurely each year due to air pollution. Long-term exposure to air pollution has also been linked to higher Covid-19 mortality rates. Is there a timeline for the development of this strategy? Will there be investment in our network of air monitoring stations, as promised in the programme for Government?

I thank the Deputy for raising this really important issue. The report issued by the EPA in recent days highlights how much work we all need to do to improve air quality. As he rightly pointed out, air quality has a direct impact on health, particularly for those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. It is linked to higher mortality. This is a life-and-death health issue. A lot of progress is being made on the new clean air strategy. It will involve increased investment in air monitoring stations. What we do not measure we cannot improve. We need to improve measurement in this regard.